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Robert Jordan, Hemingway's Bipartisan Hero

They're fierce political opponents, but it turns out that the presidential candidates do agree on a literary matter: Each man picks Ernest Hemingway's 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls as a favorite.

The book tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American who hides out in caves during the Spanish Civil War and wages guerrilla war against the fascists.

In a 2002 public radio interview John McCain said, "Robert Jordan was everything I ever wanted to be."

Though NPR was unable to talk to Barack Obama about the character so late in the campaign season, in a July interview for Rolling Stone Magazine, the candidate cited For Whom the Bell Tolls as one of the books that most inspired him.

The Hemingway Code

Two very different men find the same man's story inspirational. Surprising? War novelist Robert Stone doesn't think so.

Stone calls Jordan "a great and admirable character," known, above-all, for his stoicism, grace under pressure and toughness.

"Both [McCain and Obama] in their way are tough guys, and their code is inherent in Robert Jordan," says Stone. "Hemingway kind of created the idea of the anti-fascist hero. You can't have Casablanca and Bogart and all those characters without that Hemingway character. They also derive from Robert Jordan."

Scholar Gail Sinclair says Jordan embodies what's called "the Hemingway Code," which she explains as the idea that "there probably isn't God or a world after this so you have to establish for yourself a code of behavior so you can be happy with what you left behind."

A Man With A Mission

Robert Jordan is manly, honorable and idealistic, even in the face of sure defeat. He's charged with blowing up a bridge. It's a bad order, and he knows it. Yet he carries out his mission, protecting the small band of fighters who've been helping him in the snow-covered mountains. He sacrifices himself, for their cause.

Sinclair sees echoes of Obama in Jordan's selflessness: "I think back on Obama's mother saying, 'You must live so you make a difference in the world.'"

Jordan, Sinclair points out, was a bright young American who left a comfortable teaching job in Missoula, Mont., to hide in caves with the partisans — farmers and guerrillas who were disenfranchised from the larger society.

"Jordan takes up the cause of people who are less fortunate but not less passionate," says Sinclair. Like Jordan, Obama — also a bright young American — chose a life of public service over a well-paid law firm job.

Novelist Stone suggests that it's Jordan's strength that Obama might admire — he likens it to the kind of toughness an African-American would need to summon in order to rise to Obama's prominence.

"I can imagine that you have to be really tough to be as successful and eloquent and persuasive as Obama is," says Stone.

'The World Is A Fine Place ...'

Jordan is tough, principled, heroic — and doomed. Yet he carries out his assignment. McCain says he thought about Hemingway's hero over and over again as a prisoner in Vietnam.

"I knew that Robert Jordan — if he were in the next cell to mine — he would be stoic, he would be strong, he would be tough, he wouldn't give up," says McCain. "And Robert would expect me to do the same thing."

At the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Jordan is in a forest, looking down at the bridge he was sent to destroy. His leg is broken and he tells his young lover, Maria, that she must go on without him. And then, alone, lying there on the pine needles, he faces his death.

"He knows that life is good and it will be a very bad thing to lose his life. But he's very stoic about it, as Hemingway characters always are," says Stone. Toward the end of the book, Jordan faces his demise with a powerful reflection that McCain has quoted before: "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it."

"It's a beautiful phrase when you think about it," says McCain. "To me, it means everything: Maximize your time. Care about the world, not just yourself. And accept your fate."

Now fate has given McCain and Obama the chance to make history. It's a fight schooled, in part, by a fictional character they both admire.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.